David Remnick: In the late '70s and into the '80s, Brooke Shields was one of the most famous and controversial people in America. If she was somehow notorious, it had nothing to do with her, exactly. It was the position that she was put in as a child actress and as a young model. When she was 11, she starred in Pretty Baby playing a child prostitute. When she was 15, she started in a heavy-breathing desert island love story called Blue Lagoon. There was a notorious series of ads for Calvin Klein jeans that set a new benchmark for skeezy suggestiveness.
For a while there, Brooke Shields seemed to be at the center of everything that appalled or titillated people about the era. A new documentary about the life of Brooke Shields is airing next week on Hulu.
Speaker 1: My next guest [applause] is really a beautiful young lady who at 13 has already achieved an incredible amount of recognition. Brooke Shields starred in the highly-publicized film, Pretty Baby, and she's the subject of a new book called The Brooke Book. She is quite a fascinating young lady. Would you welcome, please, Ms. Brooke Shields.
David: Shields spoke the other day with The New Yorker's Michael Schulman.
Michael Schulman: I really didn't realize the extent to which you lived your entire life in the public eye. I mean, it seems like from infancy, you were modeling. Do you have memories of coming to realize that your life was unusual in some way?
Brooke Shields: Here's the problem with that way of-- Not your way of thinking, but that kind of rationale is I never knew anything different. I think I've seen, especially actors, go from real-- Not relative, but anonymity to fame in one movie or overnight, and the shock to their system, how much their world changes is what undoes them. Whereas I only knew working and I only knew school and jobs. That's what you did. I only worked from three o'clock on, even if they would be like, "Oh, there's a ten o'clock appointment for her."
My mom would be like, "All right, we'll see you at three." [chuckles] They were like, "What it's at ten o'clock?" She's like, "She's in school."
Michael: Right. Much of the documentary are these clips of you on talk shows sitting across from some middle-aged man asking you to essentially defend yourself or asking creepy [unintelligible 00:02:40] questions about your sexuality or your love life. Then you are usually sitting next to your mother and kind of making the case for how this is fine. There's so many of those clips and in a way, I feel like self-conscious right now because I'm also someone doing that [chuckles] in a way, asking you about the complicated morality of this work.
How did you feel sitting in those chairs, being on talk shows, being interrogated like that?
Brooke: It just never ended. There were some clips later where, or maybe this one made it in, I don't know where you can see me go, "Oh, here we go again. Here we go again." Like I became this vaudeville like, "Oh, here comes a question," or whatever. I think it made me lose so much respect for the-- [chuckles] Excuse me, but the press.
Because there was no one place that had even a modicum of integrity.
Barbara Walters: Brooke, what are your measurements?
Brooke: I'm 5' 10" and 120.
Barbara: I think when people see you, they don't realize--
Brooke: Barbara Walters want talk about my measurements to have Phil Donahue or these people, Tom Snyder and they just-- There was nothing intellectual about it. You saw these adults who you thought were supposed to be the smart people in the world, be so low as common denominator that I just became sort of shut down to all of it because I thought, "Here we go again." You watch this little girl and you think, "Shame on you, guys."
To me, I've put more blame and shame on the interviewers and the press than I ever-- What about Pretty Baby? The subject or the content or the-- Like, that knew exactly what it was it's set out to do and it was an artistic endeavor. Then you get to these journalists and you think, "How is that okay to talk to a child like that?"
Michael: Right. It's very uncomfortable to watch. [chuckles]
Brooke: It's uncomfortable to watch. I just learned at a very young age not to really trust people. I used to think, "Oh, if I say this, I'll be liked," or, "Oh, the journalist is going to get it. They're going to see it." I just learned at a very early age that that wasn't the nature of the industry, you know.
Michael: What I want to talk about next is a very complicated thing, which is Pretty Baby. Not only the name of your documentary, but of course, was also your breakout role in 1978 in the Louis Malle film, which--
Brooke: Breakout role. [chuckles] It's so funny.
Michael: Is that not the way to say it?
Brooke: No, it's the way-- It's so funny looking like reexamining all of this and sort of thinking like, "Yes, that's what they call a breakout."
Speaker 2: This is Brooke Shields, breathtaking in her screen debut. Constantly changing, always surprising, like the image of--
Brooke: Do you think I'm pretty?
Speaker 3: Yes, I certainly do.
Brooke: You love my mother more than me. I know about those things better than you. You always know those things about men when you're a woman.
Michael: I watched it recently for the first time and honestly, I loved it, but I also do not know what to think about it--
Brooke: See, I think--
Michael: -at all.
Brooke: -it's the most beautiful movie I've ever made. I think it's the only real quality film I've ever really been in. I value that movie in such a different way and wrote my thesis on it. I'm fascinated with that journey of innocence to experience and who owns it and do they become a victim to it or do they not? I don't know, it's just very interesting to me, that movie. You couldn't make it today, obviously. That's what the big theme is now. It's like, "Oh, you couldn't make that movie today." I mean, you couldn't.
Michael: It is a beautifully done film and it's about a young woman who lives in a poor house in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and this young girl's transition from-- In a way, as you were saying, not knowing that this isn't anything but normal. Then following her mother's footsteps and becoming a sex worker herself. How was the character and the plot described to you and who described it?
Brooke: I went in and just talked with Polly Platt and with Louis Malle, and he just asked me questions like, "Are you aware of what prostitution is?" I was like, "Yes, I often see on 42nd Street the girls standing on the corner and I always worried that they're cold." [chuckles] I just told him those stories about that and growing up in Manhattan, I was a city kid and I was a city kid with a single mom. I saw New York in the '70s in a very raw way. That was how I grew up.
Then he just asked me questions about the era in the early 1900s and what the wardrobe looked like, and he said, "We're telling the story. It's a true story. It's about a young girl. It's a love story." Ostensibly, it's a love story. He wouldn't have said coming of age at that point because I don't think I would've understood it, but he was talking about the mother and the daughter. We talked about my hobbies [chuckles] and what I liked doing. I liked riding horses.
I think he just wanted-- It wasn't about a proficient performer or a Lolita. It was about the innocence, an innocent and how that innocence gets taken, but her choice to not be a victim. You see it at the end of the film, cinematically, when she turns around and looks into the camera and it's the first time she looks right down the barrel of the lens and there's a young, newsy boy behind her and he's blurred. That's the last frame. How she turns that being sheep in a voyeuristic environment, she then turns it around and says, "Okay, I'm in control now. You want me to put a bow in my hair and be a kid? I got you." It's just like, to me, I don't think I knew that until later when I really analyzed the film.
Michael: Right. I'm always fascinated by what child actors understand about what they're doing, and especially when they give an incredible film performance.
Brooke: Well, it's hard to know-- No one was teaching me anything, so I wasn't being shepherded in any way, but it was interesting because I had the kissing scene with Keith--
Michael: This is Keith Carradine--
Brooke: -Keith Carradine.
Michael: -who plays the photographer who becomes your--
Brooke: Husband. [laughs]
Michael: Yes, your husband.
Brooke: We get married, and I had never kissed a boy before.
Michael: You were 11 in this movie, right?
Brooke: I'm 11. I didn't know how to do that. I had to kiss. I was like, "Oh God, I don't know what to do," and so I kept scrunching up my face and the director kept getting mad at me. Keith says, "Can I just have a minute with her?" He was in a very difficult position. I think he must have-- I don't know. I never really spoke to him about it in later years, but must have been just hard for him because--
Michael: Yes. "I'm going to kiss an 11-year-old."
Brooke: -I know.
Michael: It's weird.
Brooke: It's weird. He said to me, "This doesn't count as a first kiss." I will always be thankful for that.
Michael: It's just so different from anything now. I love how the documentary ends with you talking to your daughters who I guess are Gen Zers.
Brooke: Yes, I think so. They're 16 and 19. You haven't seen Pretty Baby, you haven't seen Blue Lagoon, you haven't even seen Endless Love?
Brooke's daughter 1: No. I will never ever watch Blue Lagoon. Sorry.
Speaker 4: Why not Blue Lagoon?
Brooke's daughter 1: Because she's like, naked. Well, I see Pretty Baby edits on TikTok and it makes me not want to watch it.
Brooke's daughter 2: Because the movie itself is like-- This is nothing against-- No, no, no. [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:12:19] The movie itself is about something that's not okay now, right?
Brooke's daughter 1: See, I never saw Pretty Baby. Is there nudity in it?
Brooke's daughter 1: Are you nude?
Brooke: I'm nude twice with my little 11-year-old body.
Brooke's daughter 1: That's weird.
Brooke's daughter 2: Weird.
Brooke: Why wouldn't you be able to see that movie today? Why wouldn't that movie be able to be made today?
Brooke's daughter 1: It's just everything is changed.
Brooke's daughter 2: It's called child pornography, technically.
Brooke's daughter 1: You were 11. You weren't mature enough to be making your own decisions and other people signed off being like, "Oh no, she's fine. You can take her top off. She's fine."
Brooke: They blew me away at the end because they weren't prompted at all and I didn't know that they were aware of any of that or thought that way. It was interesting to see them say what they felt about it. I was proud of them for being able to be able to talk about all of it. I don't know. It's again, you can't really say, "Oh, it was just a different era." It was a different era.
Michael: Gen Z knows so much about consent now and thinks about it a lot.
Michael: That seemed to be what your daughters were saying, is that, "How could you have had consent over being nude at 11?"
Brooke: I wouldn't have known to say no or that I could have said no, but it also didn't occur to me to say no.
Michael: Right. It seemed like-- And this is one thing I really learned watching the documentary is that basically, everything you did became what we would, in the present time, call a discourse, whether it was the Calvin Klein commercials which people thought were too sexy.
Brooke: You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing.
Speaker 5: Calvin Klein jeans.
Michael: I was curious if you've read supermodel Emily Ratajkowski's book, My Body?
Brooke: No, but I'm going to be on her podcast and she's going to be on mine and so I'm getting the book and I'm going to read it, obviously, before when I speak to her. It's interesting.
Michael: I was thinking about watching the documentary about you because like you, she was the face. In this book, it's a book of essays and she really grapples with what it means to make a living off of your image and your beauty. Wait. I have a quote from it that I thought was really-- "Whatever influence and status I've gained were only granted to me because I appealed to men. My position brought me in close proximity to wealth and power and brought me some autonomy, but it hasn't resulted in true empowerment."
She's talking about participating in the influencer economy and being the face of whatever brands. I'm curious, when when you had the Calvin Klein jeans ads, it almost seems like a catch-22 in that you're criticized for being too sexy in those ads and yet, also, the people profiting from it is Calvin Klein jeans.
Brooke: That's your job. You're selling. Do you know what I mean? I can't be a hypocrite and on the one hand say, "I'm going to sell your stuff and I'm going to sell it however I can. If this is what it is, then that's what I'm going to do," because it was acting. I don't then get to turn around and negate it or put it down or say, "Oh, I'm being used." Yes, that's what you do. I don't believe in this righteous kind of all of a sudden, it's like, "I'm sorry, but-- [chuckles] You know exactly you're making money and you're selling something."
In most cases, sex sells, so come on. They're just, "Shut the [beeps] up." [laughs] You go, "Oh, I'm being objectified." You're a model. It's the point. You know what I mean? I'm not being negative about that because I think she's very right about what sharp perception of that is, but by the same token, I don't believe in having a poor me.
Michael: Well, in a way, what you're saying is very consistent with what you were saying at 12 and 15 on these talk shows, which is that, "I knew exactly what I was doing getting to this and it's fine." What has changed, if anything, about your perspective on your early career just as you've gotten older and live more life? Do you feel like you have the same opinion on it as you did then?
Brooke: Pretty much. Yes, I answer my children in saying would that be a world that I would put them in then or now, and the answer is no, but they're different people. This is a different time and I have a different perspective, but do I have a different perspective about my career? I don't know. I don't think I've really changed. I feel like at every step of the way, every time someone criticized, it's so clearly became about them to me.
I would watch it time and time and time again, and I think, "You are the one with the problem and you want me to have this problem and I can't grant you that because that is not my perspective." Now, that's hard for you to take because then I'm not a victim, then what does that mean? Then it reflects back onto you in some way that you think. I'm proud of the way that I was able to maintain my point of view.
David: The documentary Pretty Baby, Brooke Shields is on Hulu starting April 3rd. You can also read her interview with Michael Schulman at newyorker.com.
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